Despite the shrieks you might have heard from a few special interests, the Obama administration’s budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deserves strong approval from Republicans. The 2011 spending plan for the space agency does what is obvious to anyone who cares about man’s future in space and what presidential commissions have been recommending for nearly a decade.
The Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry in 2002 suggested that greater commercial activity in space was the proper way forward. The Aldridge Commission of 2004, headed by former Secretary of the Air Force Edward C. “Pete” Aldridge, made clear that the only way NASA could achieve success with President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration was to expand the space enterprise with greater use of commercial assets. Most recently, the Augustine Commission, headed by Norman R. Augustine, former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, made clear that commercial providers of space-launch services were a necessary part of maintaining space leadership for the United States.
NASA consistently ignored or rejected the advice provided to it by outside experts. The internal culture within the agency was actively hostile to commercial enterprise. A belief had grown from the days when the Apollo program landed humans on the moon that only NASA could do space well and therefore only NASA projects and programs were worthy. To his credit, former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin adopted a program to begin to access commercial companies for hauling cargo to the International Space Station. That program existed alongside the much larger effort to build a new generation of space vehicles designed to take us back to the moon. It has been under constant financial pressure because of the cost overruns in the moon mission, called Constellation.
With the new NASA budget, the leadership of the agency is attempting to refocus the manned space program along the lines that successive panels of experts have recommended. The space shuttle program, which was scheduled to end, largely for safety reasons, will be terminated as scheduled. The Constellation program also will be terminated, mostly because its ongoing costs cannot by absorbed within projected NASA budget limits. The International Space Station will have its life extended to at least 2020, thereby preserving a $100 billion laboratory asset that otherwise was due to be dumped in the Pacific Ocean by middecade. The budget also sets forth an aggressive program for having cargo and astronaut crews delivered to the space station by commercial providers.
The use of commercial launch companies to carry cargo and crews into low earth orbit will be controversial, but it should not be. The launch-vehicle portion of the Constellation program was so far behind schedule that the United States was not going to have independent access for humans into space for at least five years after the shutdown of the shuttle. We were going to rely upon the Russians to deliver our astronaut personnel to orbit. We have long had a cooperative arrangement with the Russians for space transportation but always have possessed our own capability. The use of commercial carriers in the years ahead will preserve that kind of independent American access.
Reliance on commercial launch services will provide many other benefits. It will open the doors to more people having the opportunity to go to space. It has the potential of creating thousands of new jobs, largely the kind of high-tech work to which our nation should aspire. In the same way the railroads opened the American West, commercial access can open vast new opportunities in space. All of this new activity will expand the space enterprise, and in doing so, will improve the economic competitiveness of our country.
Critics likely will raise the issue of safety and reliability. However, there already are rockets in the American inventory that are trusted by our government to launch billion-dollar satellites and have proved to be quite reliable. Those vehicles can be modified to carry human crews safely. New rockets under development have been designed from the outset with manned missions in mind, and with the assurance of NASA business, necessary large-scale development can be done so they can be added to the commercial inventory. The plan is to have both NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration provide licensing oversight, determine safety requirements and approve all launches.
But the ambition of the NASA leadership is much larger. Getting the agency out of the low-earth-orbit launch business frees up budget to do other exciting and valuable things. It permits development work to start in earnest on a heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of solar-system exploration. It enables expansion of the aeronautics budget, particularly in helping develop the next-generation air-traffic-control system, a technological goal that will pay huge dividends to the United States. It will permit new investments in robotic space missions and Earth science missions. In essence, the new spending plan takes NASA back to its roots of advanced technology development, experimentation and exploration.
Bipartisan cooperation has been difficult to achieve in Congress, but here is a chance. By looking forward, NASA has given us a way to move forward. It deserves broad support for daring to challenge the status quo. It has proposed the real change that Americans are seeking.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is on the board of governors of the National Space Society. Former House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Robert S. Walker was chairman of the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry.